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# Perspective Chapter: Water, Natural Disasters and Socio-Economic Development in the Early 21st Century

By Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro and Paola de Salvo

Submitted: October 11th 2021Reviewed: November 15th 2021Published: December 24th 2021

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.101628

## Abstract

This chapter investigates the complex relationship between socio-economic development and environmental sustainability by focusing on one of the most vital natural phenomena: the water cycle. Considering the current public awareness of climate change and the growing number of natural disasters, focusing on this topic provides a better understanding of weaknesses and bottlenecks that 21st-century society faces daily. This work presents three case studies, different from each other but conceptually interconnected. The first case concerns the situation of lakes in the world, whose water in many cases is at risk of disappearing. In the second instance, we present the growing socio-economic risks generated by floods. Nowadays, floods play a fundamental role in influencing socio-economic development due to the dislocation of economic activities in Southeast Asian countries. Finally, we discuss desertification affecting large areas of the African continent. One aspect of great interest is the Grande Muraille Verte project promoted by numerous countries. Reforestation of large arid areas is the main issue; the attempt is to support local communities to implement agricultural and livestock activities. Socio-economic and environmental sustainability and resilience are the main challenges that countries, regions and local communities are facing.

### Keywords

• natural disasters
• water
• lakes
• cities
• industry
• floods
• Asia
• desertification
• Africa
• reforestation
• agence panafricaine de la grande muraille verte

## 3. Floods and industrial relocation to Asian cities

As emerges from this work, since the end of the last century environmental issues, in alternating phases, have occupied a prominent place in the contemporary public debate. If in the 1970s the risk of rapid depletion of fossil energy sources began to be pointed out, during the 1980s a series of terrible disasters accelerated awareness of the fragile balance between quality of life and economic development resulting from indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. However, and despite the widespread sharing of positions over the course of almost half a century, the environmental question still remains an area of lively political discussion that has fueled divergent positions among those who interpret environmental issues in terms of opportunities for the qualitative growth of society and those who argue that environmental protection, to be subordinated to other priorities, must not be a brake on growth. We can see this divergence of positions still at the beginning of the 21st century when the European Union Commission launched the European Green Deal [56] while other important economic systems remain anchored to more traditional scenarios. If we were to borrow the theories of the American economist W.W. Rostow, to summarize the current situation, it could be said that we are witnessing the difficult harmonization between mature economies engaged in the search for new stimuli and emerging economies in full transition or imminent take-off. Faced with such a picture, dominated by extremely fluctuating international balances, the positions taken on the consequences of climate change often end up serving as a simple background to old disputes. If on the one hand, the environmental reasons continue to find many obstacles to become the reference point for a different approach to the concept of economic development, on the other, the geography of the dislocation of industrial plants, which took shape in the decades around the turn of the 21st century, has shifted the interest on the risks deriving from the transfer of entire production chains to areas of the planet liable to suffer the consequences of frequent and devastating natural disasters. The terms of an interesting intertwining of dynamics are defined almost contradictory because, if at the same time the delocalization of industrial work can prove to be a valid tool for improving the living conditions of the population of the poorest countries, at the same time, it is equally evident that this choice that has actually ended up favoring geographic areas that are particularly vulnerable from an environmental point of view. Within the context of the dynamics of the global economy, the terms of two apparently opposite phenomena are defined to be highlighted by following different research paths. As is well known, natural disasters contribute decisively to increasing poverty and the precariousness of people’s lives, especially in the poorest countries. Indeed, the correlation between poverty and natural disasters [57] appears undoubted. According to the World Bank’s calculations, enhancing the resilience of the poorest communities would produce resource savings of about 100 billion dollars a year, reducing the impact of natural disasters on the well-being of citizens by 20%. Communities less endowed with resources and solid institutional systems have a noticeably less responsive capacity. Examples would be innumerable. In these cases, the responses are much less effective, with serious consequences also on the level of education and health of the affected communities. By fueling a negative circle, poverty deepens, even more, favoring social insecurity, mass immigration and in many circumstances, even armed conflicts. In the early 21st century alone, the cost of damage caused by “natural disasters” amounted to nearly $2500 billion, but UN calculations indicate an underestimate of the order of 50%. If we look at the statistics referring to over a century of natural disasters (1900–2015) the data collected are eloquent: 8 million deaths and damages for 7 trillion US dollars [58]. It is true that the most reliable estimates begin only after 1950. Also with regard to the trend of the victims, the evidence obtained demonstrates a plurality of aspects to be taken into consideration because, on the one hand, the natural disasters identified experience a growing trend starting from “last twenty years of the 1900s, the confirmed victims seem to have undergone a radical downsizing from 200,000 people who died in 1970 to less than 30,000 in 2011”. Positive evolution, resulting from the application of increasingly effective safety and prevention systems as well as on the quality of buildings. It is no coincidence that the problems of “holding on to places” of communities affected by natural disasters are becoming one of the basic guidelines that guide national and international intervention strategies. That the issue is of considerable importance is shown by the attention paid to the issue by the main insurance companies, involved, not surprisingly, in monitoring and providing continuous feedback. To refer to the data provided by the Munich Re insurance company, between 1980 and 2018 there were 18,169 natural events of catastrophic significance worldwide, for a total of 1.7 million deaths. In 2017 alone, losses amounted to$ 250 billion. In consideration of the nature of the event, hydrological events (floods) are placed first, amounting to 7350 of which 3501 in Asia (47.6%). Then come the meteorological catastrophes (snow, typhoons) with 7125, also in this case there is a sad record of the Asian countries (2085, 30%). Third, drought and heat appear (2111) and lastly earthquakes (1584). Divided by geographic areas of the planet, the greatest criticalities tend to be concentrated above all in Asia (Table 1).

DisasterNorth AmericaSouth AmericaEuropeAfricaAsiaOceaniaTotal
Geophysics198135148108908921.584
Meteorological2.2562631.4435462.0895457.125
Hydrological8757388901.0593.5012987.350
Climatic5601354662695441422.111
Total3.8881.2712.9441.9827.0411.07718.169

### Table 1.

Number of natural disasters (1980-2018).

To make a quick reference to the last year, for which we have data, 850 natural events of catastrophic significance occurred in 2018 [59]. Geophysical events such as earthquakes [60], tsunamis and volcanic eruptions accounted for 5% of the total. Storms reached 42%, floods and landslides 46%, while the remaining 7% correspond to very heterogeneous categories such as desertification or fires. Divided by continents, the sad record of Asia (43%) is confirmed, followed by North America (20%), Europe (14%) and Africa (13%). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), natural disasters caused a total of 96 billion dollars in losses to agriculture in developing countries between 2005 and 2015 [61]. This is a huge amount that is practically impossible to recover as, to a large extent, it affects economic systems that are too backward. Half of the losses are located in Asia due to the combination of long periods of drought and torrential rains. If we add to the damage that occurred in the Asian continent those that occurred in Africa and Latin America, the drought alone caused losses of about 30 billion. As can be seen from abundant statistical material, worldwide natural disasters are becoming less deadly but more expensive for the economy. This is what has been observed since the end of the 1980s in a country like Thailand where the growing dislocation of Japanese car factories (Honda, Toyota) [62, 63] and photographic material (Canon, Nikon, Sony) in the alluvial valleys around the capital Bangkok ended up causing the occupation of the spaces traditionally used for rice fields. The most evident negative consequences of this dynamic occurred in 2011 when due to the flooding of highly specialized industrial plants, the country suffered losses estimated at 40 billion dollars and the world car market experienced a significant slowdown. The case of Thailand, to be taken as an example, should be placed in a more general context since trends such as urban development and economic growth in developing countries increase the likelihood of natural disasters with a great economic impact. It is estimated that in 2070, seven of the 10 largest urban centers in the world exposed to the risk of flooding will be located in developing countries. In fact, the effects of the divergence between city growth and losses (human and material) in the event of natural disasters are captured. If on the one hand, the enlargement of the urbanized part reduces natural defenses against disasters, on the other hand, the cities themselves contribute to the socio-economic progress of the poorest social strata. Therefore, and as part of a very articulated debate, in certain areas of the planet [64], the challenge of the century is to make compatible the measures to contain the impact of disasters without losing the role of cities as a vehicle for improving the conditions of life of the population of the least developed countries.

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Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro and Paola de Salvo (December 24th 2021). Perspective Chapter: Water, Natural Disasters and Socio-Economic Development in the Early 21st Century [Online First], IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.101628. Available from: